New York

Les Levine

New York City Subway System And "Village Voice" Cover

In two pieces this summer Les Levine continued his work in public media. Forty-eight hundred copies of We Are Not Afraid, a placard version of his 1980 proposal for subway posters, were placed in New York subway cars during May and June in association with the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and the Public Art Fund, Inc. (The piece was also reproduced in an ad in the Summer issue of this magazine.) And Mind, a Plasticine painting, appeared on the cover of the June 15 Village Voice special issue on nuclear disarmament. In both, Levine adopted conventions of the specific medium he was working in—subway advertising and magazine covers—while continuing to use devices he has developed in other advertising-related projects of the past half dozen years.

Combining simple graphics, an attractive color photograph, and a catchy headline, We Are Not Afraid fitted right in with the usual subway ads for iced tea, hair straighteners, and suppositories. But Levine’s placard had no small print. In most ads the come-on combo of alluring photo plus tantalizing headline is backed up by a hard sell—details on why and where you should buy whatever’s being sold. Levine’s ad makes a pitch for a product that’s never specified.

“WE ARE NOT AFRAID,” the poster proclaims in bright red, two-inch-high letters on a black background, above a photograph of a casually dressed Oriental couple framed against a purple dusk sky. The man is lanky, a little sleepy-eyed; his gaze appears to go above the camera and to the side. The woman, shorter and moon-faced, looks directly at us. Both betray no particular emotion but seem instead to wait, patiently.

The enigmatic quality of the photograph is matched by that of the slogan; emphatic but incomplete, it implies another clause but doesn’t supply it. Instead, the open-ended phrase prompts a series of questions—first, about the couple and what they appear to be saying: “We are not afraid.” Not afraid of what? And why not? Then the focus of the questioning turns to the viewer. “We are not afraid,” the couple seem to be asking; “are you? And if so, why are you? And if you are, wouldn’t you like to know why we are not?”

Ads are little morality plays. Their characters are intended as Everyman figures, while the stories they depict pose catechisms—salvation is linked to the use of some product. But what is being sold here? The placid expressions of Levine’s models and their emphatically proclaimed lack of fear suggest that the “product” being pushed in We Are Not Afraid is the possibility of attaining equanimity—certainly a precious commodity on the IRT. The religious overtones of the piece had been recognized on at least one copy I saw: someone had written “Jesus the King” across the man’s T-shirt. But if anything the poster seems more closely linked to Buddhism than to Christianity.

Levine’s use of Oriental models is relevant these days and in this context; among the connotations of the Orient in the Western popular mind are those of ancient civilization, serenity, and wisdom. “I want you to think about mind,” Levine said in an interview to explain his use of Orientals. Moreover, in the context of the subways, one of the main arenas in which races and classes confront each other every day, the couple can be seen as neutrals—“people,” neither black nor white, rich nor poor.

Another association suggested by Levine’s use of Orientals—with the atom-bomb victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—comes to the fore in the Voice cover. A young Oriental girl, depicted in a simply painted frontal portrait, looks out at the viewer with a quiet, hopeful expression while angry clouds of orange, yellow, and black swirl behind her. A contented green “MIND” appears across the bottom of the page, balancing the vivid blue block of the Voice logo centered (at Levine’s request) at the top. Again the ambiguities of both the picture and the slogan imply a complex moral argument: mind, and children, are what must be saved from nuclear obliteration; at the same time, concern or lack of it (do you mind?) and caring or lack of it (would you mind this child?) are hinted at as well.

In the absence of follow-up market surveys, along with sales the usual yardstick of ad campaigns, it is impossible to gauge how effective these projects were with a general audience. Levine has received a large volume of mail about the pieces, indicating at least some level of response. Another measure of their appeal is given by the fact that after the first couple of days only a few of the subway placards were left up—the others, presumably, being stolen and hung on people’s walls.

Levine runs the risk of trivializing the problems he’s dealing with by facile wordplay or bathetic sentimentality. In other proposals—a billboard to be placed outside the Pentagon, showing a red fire engine accompanied by the single word “FIRE,” for example—he falls into the obvious. But in We Are Not Afraid and Mind his sure and subtle manipulation of media codes produced deeply affecting works on topics of immediate public importance: no mean feat.

Charles Hagen